HUMP PILOTS HOLD LAST REUNION

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    HUMP PILOTS HOLD LAST REUNION

    THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
    May 8, 2011

    WWII aviators flew supplies over Himalayas.

    JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — They are
    among the last of the greatest generation, World
    War II pilots who coaxed Curtiss C-46 Commando
    cargo planes laden with supplies over the highest
    mountain range in the world from India and Burma
    to China in what was called flying the Hump.

    Still their wits are sharp, their stories of
    battling horrendous weather and Japanese fighters
    compelling and their legs spry even climbing into
    the cockpit of the military’s latest generation
    transport, the battle-gray Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

    But, with so few of them left, this month’s
    reunion of the so-called Hump pilots who flew
    over the Himalaya Mountains was their last.

    The reunions began back in 1946. Only six pilots
    were on hand last week, meeting with reporters at
    an antebellum garden and visiting Joint Base
    Charleston, an airlift base where a new
    generation of planes ferries supplies to American troops around the world.

    “We had hoped to have more people come but most
    of our guys are in their 90s,” said 91-year-old Bill Thomas of Charleston.

    Dwindling numbers, age and infirmity are taking
    their toll. The China-Burma-India Hump Pilot
    Association itself formally disbanded in 2005
    because its members were getting older.

    Pilots began flying the Hump in 1942 to get
    supplies to China in its fight against Japan
    after the Japanese seized the Burma Road, closing
    the only land route. The operation continued
    until 1945 when the war ended. Almost 600
    aircraft were lost with almost 1,700 dead or
    missing, according to the association.

    “Weather was a big, big problem, as were
    navigation problems and Japanese fighters,”
    recalled 88-year-old Bill Gilmore of Mason, Ohio.
    “There were thunderstorms all the time. The monsoon season was really bad.”

    Through summer and early fall there were
    thunderstorms severe enough to damage aircraft.
    Flying weather was clearer in the late fall and
    winter, but that brought out Japanese fighters
    and valleys were constantly fogged in.

    Pilots also battled mechanical problems,
    exacerbated by a lack of parts and the fact the
    C-46 Curtiss Commando was a new production model.
    “The C-46 was rushed into production and the bugs
    hadn’t been worked out,” Gilmore said. “The bugs
    were worked out over the Hump.”

    Another Hump pilot, Ted Connolly of Miami,
    Florida, died two years ago but his wife, Joanne,
    attended the reunion keeping his memory alive and
    sharing a story of one of his missions.

    “He said the Japanese fighters came on and just
    played with them,” she recalled, adding the
    fighter shot up the transport so badly it couldn’t be flown.

    “He told his crew to bail out, which they did and
    he said he got scared to jump out of the airplane
    and he managed to get it back,” she said. “He got
    away because he maneuvered and flew the Jap into the mountain.”

    Tex Rankin, 91, of Fort Worth, Texas, said he’s
    saddened the fellowship is coming to an end.

    “I enjoy these meetings,” he laughed. “We like to
    get together and tell the lies. As I told my
    wife, every time we meet, the Himalaya Mountains
    get higher, the weather gets worse and there are
    more Japanese fighters in the sky than there were in the whole fleet.”

    But before the fellowship dissolved, the pilots
    visited with today’s military transport crews and
    toured a C-17, something Gilmore had never seen up close.

    “I was amazed. The size of the cabin for the cargo was unbelievable,” he said.

    Later they had lunch with air crews based in Charleston.

    “With C-17s we’re high above the weather. We’re
    above the clouds and the mountains are beautiful
    to look at and not really a threat. For you guys
    flying, it was your main threat and that does not
    go unnoticed by the people in this room who fly,”
    Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Sonkiss, commander of
    the 15th Airlift Squadron of the 437th Airlift
    Wing told the pilots later. “Thank you for what you did.”

    As Gilmore looks back, what he and his buddies
    did never got as much attention as the war in the
    Pacific or Europe. But he said it was important to the Allied victory.

    “Through the Hump we were able to keep perhaps a
    million Japanese soldiers in China where they
    could have been in the South Pacific and delayed
    the war there for who knows how long,” he said.
    “It played a role, but nobody knew about it.”
     
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